NASA concocting robots for space flights

The wisecracking robot from "Lost in Space" won't go on a mission soon, but you could see vinelike creepers and a two-handed helper. Photo: A new NASA space 'bot

SAN JOSE, Calif.--One of the astronauts in training for an upcoming shuttle flight can operate a variety of power tools, is more limber than a gymnast and has just one leg.

Robonaut, which NASA hopes to place on a shuttle flight in about 18 months, is one of a series of robots the space agency is developing to assist humans in outer space.

Others include Tendril, a robotic cable a centimeter in diameter that can snake into tight spaces and take pictures, and Scout, a four-wheel planetary rover, about the size of a golf cart, that will ferry astronauts around or carry their oxygen and other gear on planetary hikes.

Then there's Spidernaut, a 600-pound mechanical arachnid that will crawl around on the outside of space craft to fix things. Although it weighs considerably more than a person, its eight-leg design distributes the weight in manner that makes the robot's footfalls less potentially damaging to the skin of a spacecraft than those of a two-legged human.

A new NASA robot

"Where does a 600-pound spider go? Anywhere it wants," Rob Ambrose, director of the Johnson Space Center, said during a presentation at Robonexus, a conference here that ended Sunday.

Although NASA has deployed robots such as the Mars rovers for years, the agency is increasing its efforts in robotics as its missions increase in complexity. Over the next few decades, the U.S. government wants to place humans on Mars and build a base on the Moon for launching rockets, which essentially will mean human occupation of the rocky satellite. Because they don't breathe, eat or lose muscle mass during space flight, robots are great helpers in inhospitable climates.

The humanoid Robonaut will function something like an astronaut's assistant, Ambrose said. It can open doors, use a drill, climb ladders and perform other manual tasks with its two arms and two hands. Its head comes with stereoscopic cameras and a light-emitting diode, or LED, for illuminating surfaces.

Robonaut conceivably will anchor itself with all of the appropriate equipment required to perform an outer-space operation. Humans, who are much faster and more dexterous than robots but can carry only a limited amount of oxygen, will presumably pop outside to perform specific tasks and leave Robonaut out there to clean up.

To make communication easier, systems like Scout and Robonaut will respond to voice commands or gestures, he added.

The manbot even wears a white, puffy space suit, but its human resemblance ends at the waist. For one thing, Robonaut has a far greater range of motion (bending and twisting) at the waist than gymnasts, Ambrose said. It also has only one leg, with a metal toe that enables it to anchor into ports. A single leg, it turns out, is better for balance in zero gravity.

For shuttling around surfaces, Robonaut B, the second version of the robot, has an attachable base that comes from a Segway scooter.

"The Segway turns out to be excellent for moving the Robonaut around," he said.

A third version of the robot, Robonaut C, is currently under development and is slated to go on a space shuttle mission in about a year and a half, he added.

When the space shuttle will actually fly again is an open question. Unwelcome in-orbit repairs during last summer's flight of Discovery and an aging design have prompted the U.S. government to ground the shuttle fleet indefinitely.

Speed is not of the essence, Ambrose said. "When you have a robot handing you a sharp tool, you want it to be slow and deliberate."

The agency will also come out soon with a new version of the Aercam, a floating basketball of a camera that can scout the outside of spacecraft and look for problems.

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